The following is an interview with the authors of Occupy Spirituality: A Radical Vision for a New Generation, Adam Bucko and Matthew Fox. This is a part of a blog series called Our Future Imagined by North Atlantic Books.
Question: You published Occupy Spirituality: A Radical Vision for a New Generation in 2013 and it was named one of the best spiritual books of 2013 in the category of Justice along with the founder of Liberation Theology Gustavo Gutierrez. The book has been read in spiritual and activist circles from Europe to Latin America. There is even one review written by a Mormon activist who claimed that your book helped him to become a socially justice oriented Mormon. The word on the street is that people are reading it again?
Adam: The moment Trump got elected we started getting mail again from people in the US and Europe. They were telling us that Occupy Spirituality is speaking to them. The book began circulating again in spiritual and activist communities. Just in the last couple of weeks I got letters from young people in Germany who were working with the poor on the streets of Berlin, from some spiritual leaders in England, from a young Muslim trying to re-claim the spiritual gifts of her tradition and find a proper response to the refugee crisis, and from some people in America who felt that this book was encouraging their search for a proper response to the Trump presidency.
Matthew: I too sense a seismic shift in consciousness that the Trump era is bringing about—a silver lining in a dark cloud one might say. Many people—and young adults especially—are waking up to the consequences of not taking politics seriously. Many are disengaging from their addictions to screens and social media to march, to organize, to fight back, to support political candidates or to run for office. When one sees the EPA being devastated and turned over to corporate elites, global warming and climate change and science itself being diced at the highest levels of government, the naked power of far right wing media and billionaires dictating the news, one knows it is time to act and to act out of one’s deepest values. I find more and more people want to talk about Evil today and it is high time we had such conversations.
Q: The book Occupy Spirituality examines the ideas and discussions that emerged from the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. What are some principles that we can use from that movement going forward in 2017? What worked and what didn’t?
Adam: Occupy Spirituality is a book that was inspired by the Occupy Wall Street Movement but it is not a book about the movement itself. It is a book about the intuition that young people have been feeling for some time now…the intuition that we have a whole new generation of young people who are finding themselves in a world that doesn’t feel like home anymore…A world that feels more like a hospital: a hospital of broken institutions, systems, and also broken human souls. And, that this situation requires our response, a response that is deep and all encompassing, a spiritual response if you will…
Also, young people are feeling that this spiritual response will most likely not come from the religious institutions which seem to be more concerned with self-preservation, making sure that people have right beliefs, and that are too involved in maintaining the status quo. So young people are realizing that they are on their own…
Occupy Movement was an early manifestation and an early response to that. It was a beginning of what sociologist Frances Fox Piven called the Age of Protest. And it was a very successful beginning for it completely changed the political weather and made some big things possible. It gave young people hope. It created networks in which young people got a sense that there are a lot of us who are willing to stand up and risk things for the world that reflects what’s in our hearts. That initiated many things. For the first time in decades we begun talking about income inequality and the plight of the 99%, shortly after that through movements like #BlackLivesMatter we were able to voice concerns about racism in America, we had more than 400k people on the streets of New York City for People’s Climate March and we also had an unexpected candidacy of Bernie Sanders who swept our nation with messages and proposals that haven’t been articulated in decades. In recent days, we had a very holy example of Resistance at Standing Rock where First Nations showed us what spiritual leadership in the Age of Protest should look like. And…this is just the beginning…
The Occupy Movement itself and what it inspired, however, also had some limitations. It focused on building momentum but was not able to build sustainable structures that could carry the commitments of young people and those who support them into sustainable long-term structural and political changes. It accomplished a lot but not everything we hoped for. And, of course, we also got stuck with Trump presidency and all that it brings.
Responding to this very question, on what worked and what didn’t, Paul Engler, an activist leader friend of ours, created an amazing post-occupy model for how to move forward. Trained by Serbian activists who were able to overthrow Milosevic in Yugoslavia through non-violent means, he took the gifts of Occupy and combined them with other models for strategic action that lead to real results. His new book (with his brother Mark Engler) This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century presents in my view the most mature framework for how to move forward.
Matthew: I think Occupy Spirituality is much more than just a journalistic response to the Occupy movement. Others have recorded that and done a good job. By interviewing many young people both in person and by questionaires, we try to lay out the issues that move them and also separate them from their deepest quests or from the mainstream. Topics like relationships with elders, meditation, spiritual practices, one’s evolving spiritual journey and its relation to political movements—all this and more is treated in our study. Life and our response to it can be a deep but also complex thing and that is what spirituality is about and that is what we tried to canvas in our book on Occupy Spirituality.
The relationship between mysticism (our love of life) and prophecy or warriorhood (our willingness to defend what we cherish) is what constitutes adult spirituality and we tried to bring that to the fore by asking the questions we asked of these young people in the book. They did not disappoint with their answers and the depth of their search. The search goes on, with or without the Occupy movement of several years ago which, of course, as morphed and evolved but, as Adam indicates, has inspired and linked to other movements.
Q: The book is written as a dialogue between two authors from different backgrounds and generations. What are the benefits of using dialogue to approach a subject?
Adam: Matt has been my friend and mentor since 2004 and I know for me being in a conversation with him has been a true gift. We wanted to invite other people into this conversation. We started with inviting young leaders that we’ve met. Young leaders who were transforming their communities, their churches, their mosques, and who had a powerful message for the world. Each chapter of the book starts with quotes from some of those leaders and then is followed by our own conversation on the topic. We start with young people because their voices are very important and are a window into how Millennials are thinking about religion, spirituality, and justice. While sociologists like Christian Smith paint a rather bleak view of spirituality in the new generation (view that has recently been reproduced in the Benedict Option by Rod Dreher) we found that this new generation is very wise. We also found that they are longing for conversations across generations.
We also chose the dialogue format to model what conversations across generations could look like. As we said in the introduction to the book…Dialog is a wonderful methodology into which everyone can be invited. It represents the impulse towards democratic sharing and responding to each other in a way that wisdom can emerge through shared participation. Our exchange represents a dialogue between two generations and between two different lives and stories. As institutions lose their credibility, as is happening in all our institutions today, we go to stories and especially autobiographies. Individual stores are more trustworthy than the tired stories of self-serving institutions.
Matthew: I so agree with what Adam has just said. Institutions have their own egos and are eager to protect themselves at all costs. (Think of the way Catholic prelates covered up pedophile priest scandals to “preserve the reputation” of the church.) As Institutions die and fade away, they often do so with very little grace; few are those who die with dignity. Rather they tend to roar and create backlash and leave behind as much residue as they can. That is how egos act. Egos can be very selfish. That is why many young people and others striving to be healthy put distance between themselves and such dying institutions—intuition tells them to move on. (Just as Jesus talked about when he described a person who wishes peace upon a house but if he is rejected to “shake the dust from one’s sandals and move on”.)
Dialog is not just about talking but about listening. Not talking in a vacuum but talking in a context of mutual striving for understanding and a mutual desire to learn (which requires that one not have all the answers already). Elders today need to learn to listen again and to encourage the young to express their deepest concerns; at the same time elders can learn to express their observations of life and values learned in new ways with the young.
Today so much political discourse lacks listening; it is taking place in a vacuum of obstinate ideology and blatant denial. People tire of that readily. How can anyone on this planet for example deny that the seas are rising, the weather is wilder, the climate is changing? Only because one’s ideology wraps one in a bubble. Consider Speaker Paul Ryan’s agenda that proposes we “fix” healthcare by laying millions off of health insurance and give a $600 billion tax break to the already overly wealthy? How is such nonsense even possible? How can he have a gleam in his eye knowing he would throw millions off of any health care by his plan? And coming from a politician who loves to tell everyone he is a practicing Catholic and Christian—even though he completely ignores the values of the Gospel (“do it to the least and you do it to me”) and the teachings of his church such as Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si on honoring and preserving the Sacred Earth.
Q: Can you explain the idea that spiritual people need to get active and active people need to get spiritual? What does radical spirituality look like?
Adam: I think Andrew Harvey said it best: “A spirituality that is only private and self-absorbed, one devoid of an authentic political and social consciousness, does little to halt the suicidal juggernaut of history. On the other hand, an activism that is not purified by profound spiritual and psychological self-awareness and rooted in spiritual truth, wisdom, and compassion will only perpetuate the problem it is trying to solve, however righteous its intentions.” Uniting the two presents a new promise for how to live our lives and how to respond to all that is happening around us. And the things that are happening are very serious…the biggest refugee crisis in the history of the world, white supremacy of American system, child poverty, and the ignored cry of the earth that is clearly not heard by our current president and his administration.
Our whole book is about these two traditions of being in the world meeting in our lives.
Matthew: Too many so-called religious or so-called spiritual people think the goal of spirituality is simply to find an ‘inner peace.’ That is not so—and especially not so in a time of planetary crisis and a crisis in humanity whose future is very much in doubt. The goal of spirituality is Compassion. Peace without justice is a fraud. Peace requires justice and that means a new ordering of what the Lakota people pray as “all our relations.” We need to admit that our relationship with all beings is distorted; it is overly patriarchal and domineering; it is disrespectful of others and especially the weak; it is anthropocentric or “narcissistic” in Pope Francis’ language. We need deep change. Metanoia. Transformation at a deep level in order to advance humanity to its next evolutionary stage, one of compassion and justice and wisdom. We can do it but it will take work—inner as well as outer work. And time is running out. We cannot be busy baby-sitting tired institutions of religion, politics, finance or education as they die before our very eyes. We must be about creating new forms of religion (rituals included), politics, economics and education.
Q: Can you describe the concept of spiritual democracy? What does spiritual democracy look like amongst those from different denominations?
Adam: I think the first thing that we see in young people is that their relationship with religious traditions is very different. They might identify as being part of a specific tradition but they’re not usually stuck in that tradition. Our religious leaders and many media pundits might still be arguing whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, but many young people have already moved beyond that. Not only do they believe that there is one underlying reality at the foundation of all major world religious but they are also convinced that different traditions and their unique approaches to God complement each other.
It is also very important to acknowledge that a lot young people don’t actually identify with a tradition any more. These days the big news is that the fastest growing faith group in America among young people is what is sometimes called “Spiritual but not Religious” or “the Nones”. We talked about that in the Occupy Spirituality where we quoted some research from Philip Clayton (from Claremont School of Theology) who said that in the US 75% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 now consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Again, many of our churches, synagogues, and mosques are freaking out when they hear this thinking that young people are no longer interested in the sacred. But, as we explained in the Occupy Spirituality that is actually not the case at all. They are simply not interested in a religion that is stale, spiritually bankrupt and that is no longer able to speak to and address some of the big questions of our time.
We see their ability to diagnose the state of our traditions as a sign of their spiritual maturity.
Matthew: For the first time in history a whole generation of young people is being exposed to the wisdom and practices of most all of the world’s spiritual traditions—but also to the shadow and mistakes that religions have made in the past and are still engaged in today. Spiritual Democracy seeks out wisdom from every source while not demanding that one abandon his or her religious or cultural lineage. A certain religious humility can be learned—as I wrote in my book on The Coming of the Cosmic Christ 28 years ago, in the context of creation all religions become more equal. There is no such thing as a Roman Catholic rainforest or a Buddhist ocean or an atheist river or a Baptist moon or a Lutheran sun. In the context of the Sacred, all traditions have something to teach us and still, along with science, we have to seek wisdom everywhere including from nature itself.
Spirituality is more important than religion—as Rabbi Heschel teaches, “praise precedes faith.” Humans are here to praise, to be grateful for existence, and to be astonished to be in a universe of two trillion galaxies and a 13.8 billion year history. What a gift! What an opportunity! Awe and gratitude are the first step on a spiritual journey. As Mary Oliver puts it, first we must pay attention; then we must be astonished; and finally we must share our astonishment.